On this moonlight night in the year 528 B. C. a bark was crossing the almost currentless Canopic mouth of the Nile. On the raised deck at the stern of this boat an Egyptian was sitting to guide the long pole-rudder, and the half-naked boatmen within were singing as they rowed. In the open cabin, which was something like a wooden summer-house, sat two men, reclining on low cushions. They were evidently not Egyptians; their Greek descent could be perceived even by the moonlight. The elder was an unusually tall and powerful man of more than sixty; thick grey curls, showing very little attempt at arrangement, hung down over his short, firm throat; he wore a simple, homely cloak, and kept his eyes gloomily fixed on the water. His companion, on the contrary, a man perhaps twenty years younger, of a slender and delicate build, was seldom still. Sometimes he gazed into the heavens, sometimes made a remark to the steersman, disposed his beautiful purple chlanis in fresh folds, or busied himself in the arrangement of his scented brown curls, or his carefully curled beard.
There was usually more to be seen at this hour on the other side of the city—the northwestern quarter—where the fortress rose on its hill, dominating the Thiergartenthor at its foot; for the Emperor Rudolph occupied the castle, and his brother-in-law, Burgrave Friedrich von Zollern, his own residence. This evening, however, there was little movement even there; the Emperor and his court, the Burgrave and his train, with all the secular and ecclesiastical princes, counts, and knights, had gone to the Town Hall with their ladies. High revel was held there, and inspiring music echoed through the open windows of the spacious apartment, where the Emperor Rudolph also remained during the ball. Here the moonbeams might have been reflected from glittering steel or the gold, silver, and gems adorning helmets, diadems, and gala robes; or they might surely have found an opportunity to sparkle on the ripples of the Pegnitz River, which divided the city into halves; but the heavenly wanderer, from the earliest times, has preferred leafy hidden nooks to scenes of noisy gaiety, a dim light to a brilliant glare. Luna likes best to gaze where there is a secret to be discovered, and mortals have always been glad to choose her as a confidante. Something exactly suited to her taste must surely be going on just now near the linden which, in all the splendour of fullest bloom, shaded the street in front of the Ortlieb mansion; for she had seen two fair girls grow up in the ancient dwelling with the carved escutcheon above the lofty oak door, and the ample garden—and the younger, from her earliest childhood, had been on especially intimate terms with her.
It was long since a hotter season had afflicted the land; and the Nile, whose rising had been watched for on the Night of Dropping—the 17th of June—with the usual festive preparations, had cheated the hopes of the Egyptians, and instead of rising had shrunk narrower and still narrower in its bed.—It was in this time of sore anxiety, on the 10th of July, A.D. 643, that a caravan from the North reached Memphis.
It was but a small one; but its appearance in the decayed and deserted city of the Pyramids—which had grown only lengthwise, like a huge reed-leaf, since its breadth was confined between the Nile and the Libyan Hills—attracted the gaze of the passers-by, though in former years a Memphite would scarcely have thought it worth while to turn his head to gaze at an interminable pile of wagons loaded with merchandise, an imposing train of vehicles drawn by oxen, the flashing maniples of the imperial cavalry, or an endless procession wending its way down the five miles of high street.
The merchant who, riding a dromedary of the choicest breed, conducted this caravan, was a lean Moslem of mature age, robed in soft silk. A vast turban covered his small head and cast a shadow over his delicate and venerable features.
The Egyptian guide who rode on a brisk little ass by his side, looked up frequently and with evident pleasure at the merchant's face—not in itself a handsome one with its hollow cheeks, meagre beard and large aquiline nose—for it was lighted up by a pair of bright eyes, full of attractive thoughtfulness and genuine kindness. But that this fragile-looking man, in whose benevolent countenance grief and infirmities had graven many a furrow, could not only command but compel submission was legible alike in his thin, firmly-closed lips and in the zeal with which his following of truculent and bearded fighting men, armed to the teeth, obeyed his slightest sign.
His Egyptian attendant, the head of the Hermeneutai—the guild of the Dragomans of that period—was a swarthy and surly native of Memphis; whenever he accidentally came too close to the fierce-looking riders of the dromedaries he shrunk his shoulders as if he expected a blow or a push, while he poured out question and answer to the Merchant Haschim, the owner of the caravan, without timidity and with the voluble garrulity of his tribe.